ometimes, I get the impression that teachers and education planners are very slow learners, and even education politicians. They build on the past, what is there already, and just add to that, it seems. They want to make small changes, because to make big changes and do new things takes courage and it is risky, too. In addition, I don’t think that teachers do their homework well either, such as gathering information from abroad and comparing notes and evaluating what has worked elsewhere, today and in the past. And, we should all listen more to ordinary people, who are the majority in any country, not be pushed around by the middle and upper classes.

In light of the planned education reforms in Pakistan, including the beginning of implementation of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) from spring 2021, I shall today discuss some aspects of relevance and importance. In principle, I believe that Pakistan is on the right path when it now, finally, takes major initiatives to introduce universal primary education (UPE) for all children, with the same curriculum and organisation all over the country. It would be fantastic and indeed by time that every child could go to school, well, almost a doubling of enrolment from today. That would mean stretching resources, and adding resources, and it also means that only a small proportion should attend expensive private schools, which drain the broad system for resources. The main education system should in any country be government schools for all. Sometimes, though, the private sector can implement education for the government, and when the private schools are alternative schools, some of such can be allowed, and then they must also admit poor, non-fee-paying students. Let me repeat that: schools should be government schools, with room for some private providers. It should be emphasised that a common content at primary level, such as the proposed SNC, would be important. At least two-thirds should be the common SNC; the rest could be decided locally, by the province, district or even lower local levels. The private sector could be involved in that, too.

I began my article by expressing scepticism towards allowing educators to decide everything about the new universal education, with a single curriculum. They would mainly just add content and expand the current curriculum. I would like to stress that the curriculum should be slashed drastically; it should be much smaller than today, be more manageable for all, teachers and students, and the school should be enjoyable. Joy, pleasure, feeling seen and being helped on the right track, and so on, is the foundation of all learning.

I suspect that all those experts who are now involved in developing the new SNC, with all good intentions, they mainly make the curriculum longer and longer, more and more demanding for teachers and students. A primary school must be a place where all children thrive and enjoy being. A school must emphasise moral aspects and values, good work habits and teamwork, not mainly a place for learning academic content and pass exams; that is all secondary and least important for young children.

In order for Pakistan to be able to implement UPE, made compulsory, in near future, it is important to be realistic about financing, resources and facilities. I have in earlier articles discussed the possibility of running schools in shorter, two shifts daily, or days three days per week. This would mean that there isn’t need for as many new school houses and more teachers immediately. Furthermore, we should also be realistic about how many textbooks that are needed. Again, education is not mainly bookish learning. Good teachers are indeed the most important resource in education, and that means men and women who are interested in the children, not necessarily fantastic subject-matter specialists. A teacher with a short pre-service training may be a very good teacher. If a young man or woman with a university degree, even just upper secondary, wants to be a primary school teacher, a year of training ought to be enough, even just shorter orientation courses to begin with, and then off to work. When I was young, some five percent of all teachers in Norway were just upper secondary school leavers who thought for a year or two before going on to further education. I was one of those, and we were not bad teachers. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.

Let me also recall that when I had become a university student, studying education, I had a great supervisor in international and comparative education, Professor Torsten Husèn (1916-2009) at the University of Stockholm.

One of Husèn’s recommendations, which I remember so well, was that he wanted education planners in developing countries to study and draw lessons from how Europe had become literate, and how they had introduced not only UPE, but also made primary school compulsory for all children, yes, two hundred years ago. The school was often quite rudimentary, but it was for all and it played a key role in nation-building and moral foundation. The school had a few basic subjects: reading and writing, religion (Bible studies), arithmetic, and some general studies.

To consider radical alternatives seems far away from what Pakistani education planners and members of commissions and committees have gotten involved in. But that is what they should do, isn’t it? They should know about Torsten Husen’s work, and draw lessons from others, such as that of the EU Delors Commission’s Report (1996), the experiences of Tanzania in the 1970s, Paulo Freire’s functional literacy experiments and pedagogy of the oppressed thinking about the same time, Cuba’s ongoing good work, and much more. Pakistan’s education experts should also draw lessons from home, from ordinary people, and it is essential that education planners are thinkers, rather than technocrats and bureaucrats. If the new SNC planners have not been able to be brave and alternative, there is still time to take a second look at their recommendations—because little is more important than making the school system for all Pakistani children the best in the world, creating schools where all children love to be.

Atle Hetland

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid. Email: